What makes a bee hive, an ant colony, a school of fish, or the stock market so adaptive? These swarms of individuals manage to do the right thing most of the time, yet they're leaderless.
There's a lesson here. Independence leads to wiser collective decisions. Top-down control, the modus operandi of almost every religious organization, is maladaptive.
A fascinating National Geographic article, "Swarm Theory," says:
Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.
It's interesting that selflessness, losing the ego, being a part of something bigger than yourself, becoming a drop in the spiritual ocean, is an almost universal religious theme.
Devotees often dress alike, think alike, act alike, feel alike. They engage in seemingly ant-like behavior, as I wrote about in "Sand, servitude, and satguru." The usual belief is that submission to a higher authority is the way to become a part of the whole (or Whole) rather than just a part.
Yet living entities that are truly part of a collective, a swarm, don't act that way at all. Independent individual decisions each contribute to adaptive group behavior.
One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize.
Thomas Seeley is a biologist at Cornell University who studies bee decision-making. These "dumb" creatures turn out to be smarter than a lot of human organizations. The bee rules are: (1) Seek a diversity of options, (2) Encourage a free competition among ideas, and (3) Use an effective mechanism to narrow choices.
This is pretty much the scientific method. It's also much closer to how effective businesses are managed today than the traditional "I'm the boss" approach.
Even when I was a Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) true believer, my scientific outlook on spirituality led me to question some central tenets of this mystic-religious faith.
One of which was: Spiritual experiences can't ever be disclosed. This supposedly was to prevent the ego-expansion that would occur if a disciple were to let out "I saw God today" and started being revered by other disciples.
However, it also had the convenient effect (for the organization) of preventing disciples from comparing notes and arriving at a collective decision about whether the meditative and other practices enjoined by RSSB produced the desired results.
An ant colony or bee hive couldn't last for very long under this sort of injunction. If all the bees believed, "I just found some juicy flowers, but I can't tell anyone," the hive's food supply would rapidly dwindle. It's by each foraging bee independently communicating what's been found that a collective intelligence forms.
This goes a long way toward explaining the rigidity of fundamentalist religious organizations. Their top-down decision making, in which all of the authority is vested in the top levels of a hierarchy, who themselves are guided by strict dogma and hidebound holy texts, prevents the group from evolving to be in more of an accord with reality.
Religions are good at doing the same old thing. Preaching to the faithful, proselytizing, maintaining firm boundaries between Us and Them. Mechanical production lines are similarly good at churning out the same product.
But if situations change, or if the product turns out to need improving, that's when independence becomes a huge asset.
In fact, almost any group that follows the bees' rules will make itself smarter, says James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. "The analogy is really quite powerful. The bees are predicting which nest site will be best, and humans can do the same thing, even in the face of exceptionally complex decisions."
Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups, he says, if their members are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting, auctioning, or averaging to reach a collective decision.
Not surprisingly, the article touts the Internet as a key way in which people can behave more like bees. Open information sharing leads to more intelligence.
This humble blog is an attempt to contribute to more informed choices in the religious arena. People's comments on my posts, and the comments on those comments, are very much like the waggling and dancing that bees do when they return to the hive.
"I experienced this. I went there. This is what I found." As truly-told information from many individuals is aggregated and spread among the hive, wiser decisions are made.
So every time someone honestly shares their take on some subject under discussion here, they're helping to produce a swarm intelligence.
That's how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do…no leadership is required.
…Think about a honeybee as she walks around inside the hive. If a cold wind hits the hive, she'll shiver to generate heat and, in the process, help to warm the nearby brood. She has no idea that hundreds of workers in other parts of the hive are doing the same thing at the same time to the benefit of the next generation.
"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert.
…If you're looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.